Versecraft

"Voyages II" by Hart Crane

July 27, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 4 Episode 3
Versecraft
"Voyages II" by Hart Crane
Show Notes Transcript

Topics discussed in this episode include:

 

-Encountering the phantom of Crane

-VERSECRAFT HAS SHIRTS NOW!! BUY HERE

-The lamentable pedigree of the poete maudit

-Life Savers! 

-Why isn't there a movie yet about Harry Crosby? 

-Nothing says Guggenheim fellowship like some tropical adultery

-Neo-Romantics revisited 

-The "Logic of Metaphor" and Logonautics

-Poets as caretakers of language

-Cubic symmetry! 

-Rhymed vs. Blank verse

-The mighty Marlovian line

-The ocean: best wingwoman ever

-Romeo and Juliet's hidden sonnet

-John Donne's incredibly raunchy To His Mistress Going To Bed

-Walt Whitman's Song of Myself 21

-My seal of approval

-As it is written, so will it be done

 

Text of poem:

 

Voyages II

 

—And yet this great wink of eternity,

Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,   

Samite sheeted and processioned where   

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,   

Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

 

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells   

On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,

The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends   

As her demeanors motion well or ill,   

All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

 

And onward, as bells off San Salvador   

Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,

In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—

Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,

Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

 

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,   

And hasten while her penniless rich palms   

Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—

Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,   

Close round one instant in one floating flower.

 

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.   

O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,

Bequeath us to no earthly shore until

Is answered in the vortex of our grave

The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

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Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 3.3: “Voyages II” by Hart Crane 

 

Every day when I bike to and from work, I pass a grassy, vacant lot right as I’m about to turn onto Euclid Avenue. Vacant, that is, except for an inconspicuous gray plaque, shaped like a tombstone, that reads: “Site of the home of the poet Harold Hart Crane, 1899-1932. 

Crane is, along with Langston Hughes, the most famous poet to have grown up in Cleveland, and one of the most famous modernist poets of world literature, and he happened to live a mere four blocks from where I live now. Every now and then I stop and stare at the old apartment building across from the memorial, built in the 20’s or 30’s, and wonder if Crane ever had this same view as he walked out the door of his parents’ house. A complex feeling strikes me—as a young poet hungry for glory, I am both eager to indulge in the fantasy of walking in Crane’s footsteps, and also feel a nagging reluctance at embracing this very alien presence. Crane and I have drastically different poetic methods, drastically different personalities, and I approach his obscure, verbally reckless, emotionally bombastic work with a good deal of skepticism. I am more aligned with Crane’s friend, coeval, and frequent correspondent, Yvor Winters, a champion of poetic sobriety and clarity. All the same, like Winters himself, I must admit that Crane’s work can, in the best of cases, possess a powerful and enchanting beauty. This episode is an attempt to encounter and explain some of that beauty, and perhaps to exorcise the spirit of Hart Crane which haunts me on my commute. 

Before we get to that though, I have a very important announcement: Versecraft now has a merch store! T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, and tank tops with the Versecraft logo are now available in all different colors and sizes for your purchase, enjoyment, and evangelization. I actually made the store a couple weeks ago, but wanted to buy a shirt for myself first to make sure it’s all kosher. To my delight, the shirt is high quality and very comfortable, and it would look great on you, too! Check out the store at the link in my show notes or at bonfire.com/store/versecraft. Thanks guys! 

Alright, back to Crane. With any Crane poem, there’s going to be a lot to unpack, so I’m going to try to get through the bio portion of this episode briefly, and it is a brief and sad life that we’re dealing with here. Crane unfortunately happens to be one of those figures—like Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Plath, and Berryman—who fulfills the poetic stereotype of having a wild, tormented life, extinguished prematurely by wildness or torment. 

Hart Crane, who lived from 1899 to 1932, grew up in a wealthy yet severely dysfunctional Ohio family, the son of successful confectioner Clarence Crane, a man perhaps most notable for inventing life savers candies. Infatuated with literature early on, the young Crane dropped out of high school at seventeen and moved to New York City, ostensibly to enroll at Columbia. What actually happened was that he couch-surfed, took various menial advertising jobs, drank heavily, mooched off his friends, and attempted to become a poet. Over the course of the next decade, Crane moved from New York to Cleveland and back several times, rarely financially or domestically stable, often at odds with the overbearing parents who supported him, suffering from constant bouts of manic-depression, alcoholism, and romantic frustration, yet slowly gaining connections and clout in the poetry world. In 1926 he published his first collection, White Buildings, which earned him a reputation as an intriguingly talented if bafflingly incomprehensible poet. The famous critic Edmund Wilson wrote that Crane had “a style that is strikingly original, almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was not applied to any subject at all.”  

A couple years later, Crane’s father and grandmother died, leaving him a substantial inheritance. Already years at work on a new long poem entitled The Bridge, which he intended as a magnum opus and an optimistic, pro-industrial rebuttal to the broken-spiritedness of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Crane used some of this windfall to travel to France, where he was supported by notorious socialite and future murderer Harry Crosby. Though Crane did make progress on The Bridge, he spent much of his time in France drinking, sleeping with sailors, and getting into brawls, and after getting jailed in Paris after a violent encounter with police, Crane was shipped, on Crosby’s dime, back to the states. 

Back in New York, Crane finally finished and published The Bridge in 1930. This major work, on which he had staked his hopes for poetic greatness, was widely received as an ambitious failure, a work that showed promise but did not live up to its potential, an assessment which has not changed with posterity. Devastated, Crane spiraled deeper than he ever had before. Despite winning a Guggenheim fellowship in 1931, Crane did nothing with the prize money but wander off to Mexico, where he commenced an affair with Peggy Cowley, wife of his friend, the writer Malcolm Cowley. On a steamship back to New York, Crane did what for him had become a standard routine: he got filthy drunk, made unwanted advances on a sailor, and was beaten up. At his wit’s end, Crane walked to the deck of the ship, shouted out, “Goodbye, everybody!” and leapt into the Gulf of Mexico, never to be seen again. He was 32. 

Despite his uneven output, Crane has since come to be seen as one of the key figures in literary modernism, and one of the most original and important poets of the 20th century. He is a writer who, while not universally appreciated, has perhaps the most passionate following of any Modernist poet. The esteemed writers Robert Lowell, Gerald Stern, and Harold Bloom all considered Crane the greatest poet of the 20th century, while the playwright Tennessee Williams went so far as to say that when he died, he wanted to be “given back to the sea at the point most nearly determined as the point at which Hart Crane gave himself back.” Like Sappho and Shelley before him, and Plath and Tupac after him, Crane has come to be seen, quite toxically, as an embodiment of the Romantic ideal, a poetic martyr. 

Even the fiercest fans of Crane admit however that they often don’t know what he’s talking about. And this failure is not limited to dilettantes: even critics and scholars who cut their teeth on the high modernism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are often puzzled what to make of Crane’s work. The playwright Eugene O’Neill, tasked with writing an introduction to White Buildings, eventually had to back out because he simply couldn’t explain why he liked Crane’s poetry so much. Like a combination of the two animals which make up his name, Hart Crane’s work is simultaneously majestic and bizarre, beautiful and bewildering, and this paradox is one of the great sources of his mystique.

            But why did Crane write the way he did? You may recall from my Leonie Adams episode my introduction of the term Neo-Romantics. If my listener will tolerate me quoting myself, I described the term as follows:

            These poets sought not to incorporate modern, plain-spoken language into traditional forms, but to use ornate and often obscure, quasi-symbolic language to explore new and more sophisticated ways of expressing traditional Romantic values, often but not always within the framework of traditional forms and meters. For these poets, modernism meant neither a reform in subject matter nor formal arrangement so much as a reform in language itself, and a corresponding rarefication of consciousness. Less naïve than their Regency and Victorian forbears and inspired by the linguistic ground broken by the French Symbolists at the turn of the century, they would continue to carry on the pioneering spirit of Wordsworth, Whitman, Keats, and Hopkins, but in terms more nuanced, conceptual, and phenomenological, using language to call attention to itself and thereby hint at the inexpressibility of thought and feeling, the ineffable mysticism that lay behind their words.

            This agenda describes that of Hart Crane quite well. In contrast to T.S. Eliot, whose fragmentary, hyper-allusive, uncomely approach Crane derided as morbid and nihilistic, Crane sought to employ the experimental spirit of his age to move poetic language as close as possible to capturing rapturous feelings and ideas which exist deeper than and prior to rational explanation. In his view, poems ought to be composed not according to the logic of reason, but what he called the logic of metaphor. In Crane’s words: “the motivation of the poem must be derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of expression employed are often selected less for their logical significance than for their associational meanings.” In other words, Crane composed his poetry, his sentences and phrases, not with the idea that what he said had to make literal sense, but that his words would suggest certain feelings and concepts that could be metaphorically intuited by the reader, serving as a kind of intellectual shorthand which could expand their consciousness and increase their field of perception. 

            This approach to writing, which is comparable to what I dubbed Logonautics in my recent “What Poetry Is” episode, is an ethos which has attracted many a writer since Crane’s day, and continues to be popular among a particular set of Neo-Romantic intellectuals. I personally find this ethos noble but misguided. It is noble because consciousness expansion and heightened perception are self-evident goods, and I do believe these are goods which poetry can accomplish. I believe it is misguided because I think that to attempt to write beyond logic and intelligibility is to betray the purpose of language, to subvert its role as an instrument of organizing the world and communicating valuable information clearly. Just as we learn the usage of a word by witnessing how other people use that word, so too we learn how to use language by witnessing how other people use language. If poets are, as I believe they ought to be, the foremost caretakers of language, it is up to us to set an example for how language ought to be used. To write illogically is to place illogical thought processes in the minds of readers, and to implicitly advocate for an illogical world. To break down the structures of language in order to create a vague atmosphere of feeling is to encourage others to do the same, which is like burning down a forest of cedar trees in order to create a pleasant aroma. It is not responsible, and it is not worth it. 

In a time when the objectivity of truth is increasingly held suspect by radicals on all sides of the ideological spectrum, from postmodern relativists to crypto-fascist populists, it is all the more important that writers do what is in their power to foster a clear-headed vision of the world. It is true that a poet must serve two masters, Apollo and Dionysus, and in that order, but a poet must never be an agent of anarchy. 

            All of that being said, it is worth it to discover what Hart Crane brings to the table, and nowhere is that value clearer than in what is often considered his greatest lyric, and one of the most beautiful love poems in the English language, Voyages II. As you might guess, this poem is part of a larger series called Voyages, a series inspired by and dedicated to a young Danish sailor named Emil Opfer whom Crane was infatuated with in his mid-twenties. I spoke last week about the hazards of Eros, but in this poem we see the heights of inspiration to which Eros can occasionally give rise. Voyages I ends with a warning to children playing on the beach that “the bottom of the sea is cruel.” The entirety of Voyages II is a fantastic, phantasmic volta against this last phrase. It goes like this: 

 

 

 

Voyages II

 

—And yet this great wink of eternity,

Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,   

Samite sheeted and processioned where   

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,   

Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

 

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells   

On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,

The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends   

As her demeanors motion well or ill,   

All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

 

And onward, as bells off San Salvador   

Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,

In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—

Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,

Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

 

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,   

And hasten while her penniless rich palms   

Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—

Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,   

Close round one instant in one floating flower.

 

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.   

O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,

Bequeath us to no earthly shore until

Is answered in the vortex of our grave

The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

            

            

            Don’t worry—if you’re thinking, “that sounded awesome, but what the hell does it mean?” you’re in the majority. Luckily, this is a poem which actually yields itself to analysis when examined closely. Before we do that though, let’s look at the big picture: we have something we’ve never seen before, namely, cubic symmetry: 5 stanzas of 5 lines each, with five feet per line. Assuming that no line is feminine, and that there are no irregular lines, this would give 125 feet total, which is 5 cubed. 

            Unfortunately, the reality is not quite so pristine. For one thing, line 4 of stanza three is in fact iambic hexameter, a line of six iambic feet in a row: “Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal.” Expressively however, this extra foot is appropriate— a prodigal is someone who spends or gives excessively, which is formally mirrored by the excess of the line. 

            For another thing, it is unclear whether there are actually feminine endings here or not—it depends on whether we choose make use of elision, a concept we discussed last time. Interestingly, none of these possible feminine endings occur until the fourth stanza, where we find three of them, on the ending words “hours,” “desire,” and “flower.” Each of these words can be pronounced as either one or two syllables, and how we choose to pronounce them will determine whether these lines have feminine endings or not. 

            This abundance of similar endings leads us to consider the rhymes of this poem. There is no consistent scheme, but Crane inserts slant rhymes, true rhymes and other echoes as it suits him, sometimes across stanzas: “bends” and “rends” and “hands,” “knells” and “ill,” “Prodigal” and “spell,” “hours” and “flower,” “wave” and “grave,” “desire” and “fire.” These harmonies add extra-musical interest to what is otherwise blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter. 

            Alice once asked me if I like any poetry that isn’t in meter and rhyme. I understood that she was mainly talking about prose lyric, and there is some prose lyric that I like, but I also wanted to make clear that even though I’ve been and will continue to be a champion of rhyme, I think that unrhymed metrical poetry is often just as interesting and sometimes even more interesting than poetry that has both meter and rhyme. I gave the analogy of color vs. black and gray tattoos: The addition of colors and color blending can add all sorts of delightful effects to tattoos, but black and gray tattoos are often just as if not more interesting, because they have nothing to hide, and must be more resourceful and virtuosic with their effects: in the absence of color, subtleties of linework, shading, and detail become all the more visible and all the more crucial. Similarly, when metrical language is stripped of rhyme, it is all the more essential that it possess an interesting and engaging rhythm. Another even better analogy might be the contrast between European Classical music and Indian Classical music: whereas the former, like rhymed poetry, often relies on rich harmonies for expressive interest, the latter, like unrhymed poetry, relies on subtleties of modality and rhythm. 

            So, in the absence of consistent rhyme, what does Crane do to make his rhythm interesting here? Interestingly for a blank verse poem, there is very little enjambment—in fact, we find it strongly only in lines 3 and 23. The critic Harold Bloom once called Crane’s style Marlovian, and here we can see why: like Christopher Marlowe, master of what Ben Jonson called “the mighty line,” Crane tends to write his lines as stand-alone bombastic phrases, intending each one to ring loudly and distinctly with the resonances of extravagant diction. 

            The sonorousness and polysyllabicity of Crane’s diction is able to provide some rhythmic interest on its own, but he largely creates dynamic metrical music through punctuation, rhythmic modulation, and subtle use of metrical substitution. Let’s take the first stanza as an example. 

            In the first line, on “wink of,” we have a third foot trochaic substitution, something we also find in the first line of the third stanza. Normally I’m not a fan of these, but Crane makes them work: the first because of the fact that it’s the first line of the poem, and a strong iambic pulse hasn’t yet been established, and the second because of the placement of the caesura after “onward.” In line two of the first stanza, we have a strong second foot caesura; in line three, a line of acephalous iambic pentameter, which, as I’ve remarked before, can also be read as a line of catalectic trochaic pentameter which acts contrapuntally to the iambic norm. To borrow a term from Classical music, these two interpretations are what we might call enharmonic meters: C sharp and D flat are the same note, but we interpret this note as one or the other depending on what key we are in. By the same token, we ought to call this line acephalous iambic pentameter because we find it within an iambic poem, but the trochaic effect is still worth noting. 

            In the fourth line, rhythmic interest is created by a very strong third foot iamb on the syllables “vast bell.” The technique of using strong iambs is a favorite of Crane’s: we find it again later in line 15 on the phrase “veins spell,” and again in lines 17, 18, and 19 in the phrases “rich palms,” “bent foam,” and “sleep, death.” 

            To go back to the first stanza, in the fifth line we find a first foot trochaic substitution. We can see then that in each of the first five lines of this poem, Crane has used a different trick to create rhythmic interest. Other interesting effects include the luxurious alliteration of line 7: “scrolls of silver snowy sentences,” a possible anapest in line 13 on the word “poinsettia,” the aforementioned hexameter in line 14, and the possible feminine endings which pepper the fourth stanza. 

            Now let’s go back and read the first stanza again: 

 

—And yet this great wink of eternity,

Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,   

Samite sheeted and processioned where   

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,   

Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

 

As I mentioned earlier, this poem begins by turning on the ending line of the previous poem: “the bottom of the sea is cruel.” Here, Crane shifts to describing the sea in ecstatic, sensuous, anthropomorphized terms, the perfect symbol of endless love and mystical transcendence. He begins by bizarrely describing the sea as a wink, thereby already endowing it with humanity, and what’s more, a flirtatious, conspiratorial spirit—perhaps the sea itself is a divine sign of eternity, a “wink” from the beyond. Interestingly, the word “wink” is related to the German word “winken,” meaning wave, so it’s actually more appropriate than it may first appear. The ocean is described as eternal, rimless, unfettered: the very embodiment of limitlessness, and therefore the perfect reflection of both the nature of God and the feeling of being in love. 

Samite is a silken fabric interwoven with precious metals, often used for dressmaking in the Middle Ages. This glittering fabric is compared to the sunlight glittering on the surface of the sea, and suggests that the sea itself is a princess or queen. This feminine imagery is compounded in the next line: “undinal” means “like a water nymph,” and Crane describes her belly sensuously bending, like an odalisque, toward the object of her desire: the moon, which creates her tides. Crane then compares the sound of the lapping tides to joyful laughter, a sign of the ocean’s sympathy with Crane and his lover’s lovemaking, which is described by the rich phrase “wrapt inflections.” “Wrapt” is meant of course to mean both bodies being wrapped in one another and also the sensuous rapture that ensues. The word “inflections” is used to describe the rhythms of lovemaking, parallel to the rhythms of the sea, and the rhythms of poetry. Because the word “inflection” also has the connotation of spoken words, it additionally suggests both the words of love that are spoken during intimacy and the idea that lovemaking itself is a kind of language. 

Now let’s look at the second stanza:

 

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells   

On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,

The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends   

As her demeanors motion well or ill,   

All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

 

The phrase “take this sea” situates the speaker as one who is literally gesturing toward the ocean. A diapason is a sounding of all the notes in an octave, and refers to the all-encompassing drone of the ocean. The word “knells” introduces the poem’s first ominous note: a “knell” connotes the solemn tolling of a bell, usually for a funeral. This rhythmic roar of the sea manifests in the white surf of the rolling waves, which are compared to silver, snowy scrolls. That the adjectives are applied to “sentences” rather than “scrolls” even though “scrolls” is the intended referent, is an instance of hypallage, a literary device you may recall from my A.E. Stallings episode. The fact that the ocean is a writer of sentences further humanizes the ocean, endows it with intelligence, and likens it to the poet himself. 

As is his wont, Crane continues to use association rather than grammatical sense to convey his meaning: “sceptered terror” refers to the simultaneously regal and terrifying power of the sea. It is the power of the sea, not its terror, that rends, but for Crane this is unimportant—the meaning comes across regardless. Crane further personifies the ocean as capricious, preserving or destroying based on her mood. And yet, while the sea can destroy almost anything, it cannot destroy the quasi-religious power of love, which is metonymically expressed by the phrase, “the pieties of lover’s hands.” This phrase in turn recalls the beautiful hidden sonnet in Romeo and Juliet just prior to the lovers’ first kiss. After Romeo worries that his hand is unworthy to touch Juliet, Juliet responds: 

 

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

which mannerly devotion show in this;

for saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss. 

 

Now let’s now begin the poem again, this time reading through the third stanza: 

 

—And yet this great wink of eternity,

Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,   

Samite sheeted and processioned where   

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,   

Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

 

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells   

On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,

The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends   

As her demeanors motion well or ill,   

All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

 

And onward, as bells off San Salvador   

Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,

In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—

Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,

Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

 

            As if they are together on a ship, Crane urges his lover to bring them further out to sea, where bells on the island of San Salvador seem to pay homage to the stars, which are compared to glowing crocus flowers. Here we should notice a few things: firstly, the recurring imagery of bells, this time without any ominous note—it is as if love has conquered the sceptered terror of the sea. These bells are almost certainly church bells, cementing the association between love and religion established by the “pieties of lovers’ hands.” The island of San Salvador in the Bahamas was where Christopher Columbus first landed in America, and Crane, just like John Donne in “To His Mistress Going To Bed,” seems to be comparing the excitement of discovering his lover’s body to the excitement of discovering the New World. Furthermore, San Salvador translates to “Saint Savior,” and there is no doubt that Crane felt that his love for Emil was a form of salvation from his poor mental health. Crocus flowers are associated with love and rebirth, and by comparing stars to these flowers, Crane suggests how the entire world has been transformed in his eyes by his love. 

            Crane sees flowers not only above, but below: the surface of the sea, which he earlier compared to glittering samite, has now grown a rich red color with the onset of twilight, and this field of red he compares to a meadow of poinsettias. As the ship slowly sails past more tropical islands, Crane compares the gradual sight of them to adagios, slow paced works of Classical music. Crane calls his lover “my prodigal,” an epithet rich with meaning. Firstly, we cannot but recall the story of the prodigal son from the New Testament, which concerns a son who receives an inheritance and proceeds to abandon his family and squander his fortune. Crane also suffered from feelings of abandonment, as Emil often had to embark on sailing expeditions for weeks at a time, leading to much suspicion and jealousy on Crane’s part. Prodigal also has a positive association however: someone who is prodigal is someone who gives or spends extravagantly, and no doubt Crane felt that the love he received and felt for Emil was an extravagant gift, and it is this which makes his lover prodigal. We would also do well to identify an echo of Whitman here, another American bard of homosexual love, who also favored this word, as in Section 21 of Song of Myself: “Prodigal, you have given me love—therefore I to you give love!” 

            As for what “dark confessions” the sea spells, these are unclear to me—but again, we have the image of the sea communicating through language, suggesting that love enables an intelligible communion between nature and humankind. 

            Now let’s take a look at the fourth stanza: 

 

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,   

And hasten while her penniless rich palms   

Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—

Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,   

Close round one instant in one floating flower.

 

            With his poinsettias, Crane had already implied the dying of the day—now, he urges his lover to hurry, perhaps to move them both further out to sea, into the depths of love, or else to hurry back to him from his sailing voyages. The ocean is described as having “penniless rich palms,” an obvious paradox which points out the figurative richness of the sea’s significance, and perhaps the richness he himself feels despite his financial straits. It also of course recalls the pieties of lovers’ hands from earlier. 

Again, we have the image of the sea writing messages, superscriptions of bent foam and wave, and again Crane urges his lover to “hasten, while they are true.” In this otherwise rapturous poem, this is the only moment of sobriety: Crane recognizes that the mystical ecstasy of infatuation is fleeting, and urges his lover to come to him, or else to deepen their love, before they lose their ability to believe that they can commune with the sea, with the infinite. Crane seeks a moment of pure mystical transcendence, where “sleep, death, desire, close round one instant in one floating flower—” a great wink of eternity indeed. In the most extreme experience of love, which is an eradication of the self in the other, all forms of oblivion have appeal: sleep and death are reconciled to the self by desire, and love makes an evanescent, incandescent blossom of life, as we have seen from Crane’s view of the sea and sky through floral glasses. 

Finally, let’s examine the fifth stanza:

 

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.   

O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,

Bequeath us to no earthly shore until

Is answered in the vortex of our grave

The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

 

            Crane concludes by addressing a prayer to the seasons, and later to the stars: bind us in time, and awe. That is, let this moment and this feeling last. This first line of the last stanza exhibits Crane’s musical artistry—he could have said “bind us in time and awe, O seasons clear,” and the line would have been totally lackluster, even goofy. By placing “O Seasons clear” in the middle of the line, and complicating the syntax, Crane gives us a much more interesting sounding utterance. 

            I’m a bit at a loss as to why the galleons are called “minstrel,” except that Crane is once again projecting a poet’s role onto nature. However, I believe the galleons themselves refer once again to the stars—after all, stars are balls of flame that appear to travel, like ships, through a sea of night, and play a crucial role in guiding actual ships to their destination. The fire is Carib of course because the poem takes place in the Caribbean, as the mention of San Salvador indicates. Crane begs these stars not to lead him and his lover to an earthly shore—that is, to a land of harsh reality and disillusionment— until the sea, their infatuation, destroys them, and in the act of destroying them, reveals the mystical answer to the yearning for transcendence which human beings experience, and which Crane symbolizes in a brilliant image: the way a seal basking in the sun looks up as though longing for heaven. It is this image, so beautiful and so immediately intelligible, so wonderfully suggestive of the possibility that all life forms long for God, that wins me over to this opulent and incorrigibly Romantic poem. The fact that Crane would actually die by plunging, heartbroken, into the depths of the sea adds a haunting quality to this poem, and reminds us that a recklessly Romantic ideology that fetishizes ecstasy and death can in fact lead to reckless, horrible deeds. Words, as Crane’s talent makes so clear, and as every writer must believe, have tremendous power. 

            With all that we’ve learned and explored, let’s encounter this poem one last time, as an old friend: 

 

            

Voyages II

 

—And yet this great wink of eternity,

Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,   

Samite sheeted and processioned where   

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,   

Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

 

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells   

On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,

The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends   

As her demeanors motion well or ill,   

All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

 

And onward, as bells off San Salvador   

Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,

In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—

Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,

Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

 

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,   

And hasten while her penniless rich palms   

Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—

Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,   

Close round one instant in one floating flower.

 

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.   

O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,

Bequeath us to no earthly shore until

Is answered in the vortex of our grave

The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.